Voters Poised to Alter Term Limits Law

Poll shows support for reforming how long California lawmakers serve

California voters were fed up 32 years ago when they approved the state's term limits law. Fed up with the flamboyant deal-making of then-Speaker Willie Brown. Fed up with an image of corruption highlighted by an FBI bribery probe.

And now, it appears, voters are fed up again with the dysfunction at California's Capitol that term limits has helped to create.

A new Field Poll shows strong support for Prop 28 on Tuesday's ballot, which would reduce the maximum number of years that a lawmaker can serve from 14 to 12. But the measure would allow that lawmaker to serve all those years in one house.

Currently, the limits are six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

I saw the effects of term limits kick in during the mid-1990s, when I was covering the Capitol. And while it created more diversity and eliminated some entrenched dinosaurs, it also meant an exodus of bright and talented legislators. Republican Ken Maddy, a respected budget expert, comes to mind.

At the Capitol, the term is "up or out." Once elected, lawmakers cast their eye on moving up to the next post, before they're termed out. It means less focus on developing knowledge and relationships.

As a result, there's been a power shift. Lobbyists and legislative staff are the ones who remain, and who have the institutional memory, not the lawmakers themselves.

Legislators who are new to the building find themselves occupying key leadership posts. It's become a place for learning on the job, when it shouldn't be.

It's more difficult for leaders to reach agreements. Members feel less compelled to sign on. Gridlock ensues.

Prop 28 is no cure-all. But it would reduce the revolving door that's a part of dysfunction in Sacramento.

Author Kevin Riggs, an Emmy-winning former TV reporter in Sacramento, is Senior Vice President at Randle Communications.

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